[Archive] [Chapter 2]

Northwest to Alaska
Chapter Three

by Peter S. Oleson

Ketchikan was not a large town, but because it hugged the sides of the mountains which comprise a large area of Southeast Alaska, it was a long town, long and narrow. Many of the houses there were not directly accessible from a street. These buildings were reached by using boardwalks. It seemed like the steepest parts of town had the most of these walkways. The only real hassle with this layout for someone without a car was the distance between some of the places one had to get to. It was a long walk from one end of town to the other. I know, I walked it many times. Especially in those first few months there.

There were some customs about Ketchikan that I had never run into before. If a person stepped off the sidewalk, all the traffic immediately stopped to allow the pedestrian to cross the street. I didn't realize at first why people did that. Also, the Fire Department was a volunteer organization, and all along the main street of town there were sirens on the power poles. When a fire alarm sounded, all the sirens went off and all traffic on the main drag pulled over until the sirens quit, and it didn't matter which way the trucks went from the stations. Everybody pulled over to let the volunteers get to the station or to the fire, and they could be coming from home or wherever they worked.

After Diane and I had lost our traveling cohorts, we were looking at October. It started raining in October. We knew it rained a lot there, we did not know that it rained all the time. We had arrived during an unusually long high pressure spell during the month of September and the weather was gorgeous. Walking was no longer as much fun in the rain. One soaking wet day it dawned on me where the custom of stopping for pedestrians came from. It was purely out of sympathy for the miserable bastards who were unfortunate enough to be walking in the rain.

All news was not bad news, though. After repeated stops at any businesses that might offer any hope of employment, I was finally hired by the local VW dealership. I had never worked on a Volkswagen, but I did know that the engines were in the rear of the vehicles. In fact, the only time I remembered being in a VW was on a particularly ill fated evening in Wisconsin where, during the course of one-eyed Brent's bachelor party, I was involved in two motor vehicle accidents. The first being the roll-over of the VW Beetle, in which I was a rear seated passenger. Five big drunken guys in an upside down Bug is not a pretty sight, especially from the back seat. Later, not wanting to be trapped in another rear seat situation, I opted to ride on the back of El Lardo's flatbed truck. I managed to fall off the roof of the truck somehow, at highway speed ( Don't ask, I was unconscious for a while and all I know about the whole thing is hear-say). I woke up later that night lying in the back of the truck alone outside the house I shared with One-Eye and El Lardo, where they were continuing the party. I ended up going to the hospital the next day because I hurt so bad I thought I might score some pain-killers there. The nurse they gave me was a fellow I knew from High School named John. He was always a nice fellow and he was nice to me that day, too. I thought maybe a little too nice, the way he bandaged my wounds and cluck-clucked me, he struck me as being somewhat more effeminate than I remembered him. It was 10 years before I found out that he wasn't John anymore, but Joan. I don't know where along that strange shape-changing trail (s)he was that day at the hospital, but I hope (s)he's happy with whatever it is (s)he is now. On top of that, I didn't get any pain pills. However, I digress.

The service manager at the Shop was a nice young guy, older than me, of course, named Jim. He was the person who actually hired me. The Shop was built on pilings over Tongass Narrows and maybe a half mile from the shack. Jim gave me a basic explanation of Volkswagens (this is the motor, the spark plugs go here, now tune it up). So I began the series of daily walks to work with my packed lunch to get the $4.50 an hour they paid new guys. I had to read a lot of manuals in the evenings for a while. It turned out that my job was to figure out the antique fuel injection that VW used back then. Steve M, the senior mechanic was not smitten with fuel injection, so I was the guppy they found to do that kind of stuff. I guess it turned out OK, everybody eventually ended up using it, so I have a job still, working on cars fuel and electrical systems.

I really needed a car, though. On particularly bad days I would hitch rides to and from work. On just normally drizzly days, I would walk. On one of those hitching days I got a ride from a freaky looking guy in a VW bus. A 1965 panel model which he was making into a camper. We kind of hit it off from the start, I thought, but we had a kind of a glitch that first day. Steve C. had to make a stop on the way to wherever he was bound. While I was sitting in the bus waiting, I noticed a pistol in a paper bag behind the drivers seat, so I took it out and looked at it. I put it back it the bag and stuck the bag back where I found it. I guess I stuck it a little further back than I thought I did. When Steve C. came back and dropped me off, he was driving away and reached back to check on his gun and didn't feel the bag. He thought for a minute that I had stolen it.

Diane lucked out and landed a job at the local hospital. She was hired by the personal director, Gary, who happened to be the best friend of Jim at the Shop. Small towns are like that.

Dago had to stay home during the days alone. For a while, I made him stay indoors, but as he became familiar with the neighborhood, I would let him out for the day. He had a lot of trouble with the local big burly dogs. When I would get home and find him nowhere about, I would have to walk around the alley and find the car all the big dogs would be hanging around. Chances were good that Dago would be under that car. The landlord's kids, from upstairs kind of adopted Dago and he got along well with their dog, too. He got to spend some of his day time upstairs with them when we were at work.

He wore out his welcome there one day, though. Apparently he took their raw beef roast off the kitchen counter where it was thawing and drug it down to our place to eat. That was when the upstairs kids found him, anyway. One small stuffed black dog and one nearly devoured roast. He never got free roam up there after that.

Neither of us was making a whole lot of money. We didn't have a television or even a radio at the shack. We would walk around if the weather wasn't too bad in the evenings. Most of the times we walked, we would end up at the Public Library. We spent a lot of time reading that winter. Reading and getting acquainted with people. Steve C. got a job working at the Shop not long after I did. His mom Ann was very nice and their apartment was kind of a gathering area for the local weirdo element in our age range.

I bought a cheap automotive 8-track at the local drug store. There were no chain stores or fast food joints in town. All the businesses were local businesses and they did a pretty good job of covering the spectrum of items a person could conceivably use. The local commerce was focused pretty much on the fishing industry, with lumber second and mining coming in a distant third. I found a junk car battery in a wreck behind the Shop and made a little wooden box to house it and the tape player. I only had one speaker, so I mounted that in a cardboard box. A week or so later, we found an old black and white television at the pawn shop down the road for $25. There was only one channel and it didn't come in very good. There wasn't much news on it though because all the shows had to come up from America on tape and then were broadcast locally a week or two after they aired down below. Pretty strange watching the news from two weeks ago. I think they flew up the Super Bowl special, that ran only a week delayed. A lot of people didn't listen to the radio for a week so they could get into the game.

It was about that time that we walked one weekend all the way to the southern end of town. They had a music store there. They also had "Europe 72", which I didn't know even existed. I had to have it. That evening I got good and blasted and sat my cardboard speaker box on the floor, wired the second channel into the television speaker and laid down with my head between them and hit the play button.

I lost all track of where I was, I don't think I even opened my eyes except when I had to switch tapes. What an incredible album. It's hard to describe what I felt. Maybe hypnotized would be the closest I could come, maybe enchanted, maybe entwined. As the last notes died away, I got jerked back to reality. The landlord was playing "Running Bear" obviously in protest to my overloud and distorted GD. In the mood I was in then, though, aliens could have raped me and I wouldn't have cared. Looking back with the perspective that I have now, that may have been the first time that I felt that the Grateful Dead was somewhat more than the sum of it's parts; and that magically, somehow I was a part of it.

Two things happened that first winter, though, that changed our lives forever. The wonderful innocence we had brought to Alaska was violated, and the one who violated it was I. We were scratching out a meager living there in Ketchikan, things were getting better, and Diane came up pregnant. I blew it, I admit it, I was concerned that people who lived in the black hole of an alley and were merely subsisting could not in any way even consider the possibility of progeny. No thank you, not for me, no way. What expecting mother could hold someone with those sentiments dear? The inevitable rift occurred. Diane was forced, by me, to apply to the proper state agency for an abortion. Which the Great State of Alaska paid for, thank you very much. Those days, those useless, egocentric, wasted days afterwards left us with no common ground. And I reached out for ground to the people I knew and had known. El Lardo came up to Alaska. This was the other of the two events, if you were wondering. I am wondering what might have been. That was the second being that I had a hand in killing.

El Lardo was the best friend I ever had. His father was the mayor of the fair city where we were raised, and his basement, I dare say, was inviolate. Tony and I were photography freaks. We had our darkroom down in the mayors basement. Also, Tony lived in that basement when I would stay over there.

We had a third member of the group there in the cellar: Mike Z, son of the local police chief. How safe a place could you find? Mike joined the Navy and was destroyed in an incident involving the boiler of an aircraft carrier, whatever that means.

Anyway, Tony came up to live with us. So much stuff happened in such a few months back then that it's hard to remember what happened when. I know, though, that as things became tighter between me and El Lardo, they became much looser between me and Diane. The classic wife vs. Best friend syndrome.

(MS Word insists that that B in best be capitalized, after three attempts to lower case it. Who am I to argue with Billy G.?). Where was my train of thought?

We moved out of Hopkins Alley shortly after El Lardo showed up. We moved south of town to another shack. We rented it from a guy we called Gorgeous George. He was a former janitor at the local grade school, who had been caught more than once humping the goal post at that school. In true government fashion, he was allowed to serve out his time (school folks have an incredibly strong union, don't they? I don't mind that it protects the good people, but should it protect the questionable?) We had to go to George's house to pay the rent, and naturally, I had to scope out his medicine cabinet: after we were treated to his demonstration of his new microwave oven, and we had eaten umpteen soft and hard boiled eggs, which he enjoyed cooking in his new oven.

George's wife was even spookier than he was, and she had a prescription for Thorazine and had, according to the instructions on the bottle, to take one of them every three to four hours. It was a big bottle. It was an almost full big bottle. When we left, it was a half full big bottle. Who there would ever know the difference? We were downed out and pitifully drunken for a long while after that. It helped dull the pain of Diane's leaving. She left to live with her brother in Santa Anna down there in L. A..

The house we were living in there on Roosevelt Drive, became a mecca for weirdos. The previous tenant was a totem carver named Nathan, who would show up on nights when Steve C. and his band would show up to practice. Some nights nobody would show up, the drum set was always taking up most of the living room, and El Lardo and I would try to play music. We should have stuck to singing harmony, as we were not bad at that, but all that equipment sitting there was so inviting

It was during that time that El Lardo told me that I would be leaving soon to retrieve my one and only, my lost love, Diane. He was right, but in the interim, strange stuff was happening. I met Milo. He came to work at the Shop. With him, Jack Bunch came into our little reality.

Milo and Jack lived in Milo's old step van. Trouble followed them like a happy puppy. No sooner would we go into a bar than there Jack would be, lying on the floor. He couldn't seem to keep his hands off of other peoples women. Then the police would come, it all became so predictable, Jack goes to jail, Milo freaks out, we put Milo to bed, I had to break that chain of events.

I left Ketchikan, I left Jack and El Lardo, I went to retrieve my one and only true love-Diane. While she was gone, I would go to this little phone booth at the hospital every Friday night after I got paid, and I would plug that stupid phone with quarters just to hear her voice. I loved her then and I love her now.

Call me whatever you will, but isn't love the one thing we all seek and follow?

I flew out of Ketchikan from an airline that took off of the water, when we got to Metlakatla, the plane was about to land on the ground. I freaked out and yelled to the pilot that there was no water under us. He laughed, the pontoons had wheels.

I left Alaska, I vowed to return, as soon as I could, but I needed the woman that I loved, and I would not be denied. I took Dago with me in a stupid little wire cage that I built. I was airborne, and the summer would see my return.

Peter S. Oleson

From [poleson@ptialaska.net]